In Defense of Social Media (At Least Some Of It)

Scott Berkun just posted a great rant titled, Calling Bullshit on Social Media. I suggest everyone read it. Berkun raises good points – and I agree the hype around social media warrants taking a critical look. Despite being in general agreement, there are a few areas I can’t abide, starting with this statement:

social media is a stupid term. Is there any anti-social media out there? Of course not. All media, by definition, is social in some way.

Railing against the popular lexicon is always a losing bet. Language is formed by collective agreement and it sticks because it resonates and serves a purpose. The words we use to assign to concepts can reveal quite a lot. Rather than dismissing it, we should try and learn from it. I have written before that I believe the term “social” is a new metaphor for understanding how we will transact business and conduct government. As Lakoff and Johnson so aptly pointed out in Metaphors We Live By, metaphors play a crucial role in shaping our very thought and action. We should take the “social” in social media seriously.

Next Berkun writes:

We have always had social networks. Call them families, tribes, clubs, cliques or even towns, cities and nations. You could call throwing a party or telling stories by a fire “social media tools”. If anything has happened recently it’s not the birth of social networks, it’s the popularity of digital tools for social networks, which is something different. These tools may improve how we relate to each other, but at best it will improve upon something we as a species have always done. Never forget social networks are old. The best tools will come from people who recognize, and learn from, the rich 10,000+ year history of social networks.

Well yes and no. The problem is this. Communication is the foundation of economies, government and business. When you scale up communications you change the world. It is that simple. When you radically accelerate or democratize a means of communication (I would include physical transportation in this category too) it is not a change in class (as Berkun argues) it is a change in kind.

By analogy, the railroad did not invent the wheel nor did it invent locomotion or steam power. In fact the train did not create anything particularly new. What it did was massively accelerate the ability to move people and goods across land. That acceleration changed everything… In the U.S. it standardized time, it nationalized commerce. Around the world it broke the lock of power on maritime cities that used to control commerce… and on and on.

Similarly the Internet, and social technologies in particular, do not create much that is new in the way of content (or even human interaction as Berkun notes) but the medium massively accelerates our ability to create, share, connect and collaborate. That acceleration of our innate capacity and desire to be social is exactly what makes social technologies transformative. Where I agree with Berkun’s statement above is that the same rules of social etiquette will apply in this media. That is exactly what stuns so many corporations believing they can migrate essentially antisocial behaviors (hack PR blogs, social media gimmick campaigns etc.) into “social” media.

Lastly Berkun writes,

Be suspicious of technologies claimed to change the world. The problem with the world is rarely the lack of technologies, the problem is us. Look, we have trouble following brain dead simple concepts like The Golden Rule.

Agreed. People can really suck. But “change” is a value neutral term. It doesn’t imply good or bad and while it is true that many negative human traits will accompany these technologies, it is hard to overstate the magnitude of the changes that are taking place as a direct result of social media – new ways to communicate, stars (including academics finding an audience) born from YouTube, bloggers redefining journalism and science, open source software dethroning traditional players, the demise of established industries like publishing, music and entertainment, with other industries like telecommunications and manufacturing, retailing queuing up for their turn. We see social technologies organizing spontaneous rallies in California, Moldavia and most recently Iran. That is change. I would also argue that the democratic promise of these tools – the promise that people can connect with each other without an intermediary (I know all of the ways that this may not turn out to be the case – but still…) holds the possibility of distributing power more evenly. If there is one root problem in much of this world – it is the concentration of power wielded by a small minority. We should celebrate any technology that lowers barriers to communication.

caveat: Scott Berkun is an O’Reilly Author and in my defense, I owned his book Myths of Innovation long before I joined O’Reilly.

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